Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Praise for Athenian Legislation.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
page 10 of 11
The Athenians do seem to have been, on the whole, proud of the distinction between decrees and laws. Aeschines, for example, asks and answers a rhetorical question pitting the decrees of the Assembly, which were easy to pass, against the laws, which were subject to the complex procedures for legislation: “Why do you suppose it is, fellow citizens, that the existing laws are good, but that the decrees of the city are inferior to them, and that the verdicts rendered in the courts are sometimes open to censure? I will explain to you the reason. It is because you enact the laws with no other object than justice, not moved by unrighteous gain, or by either partiality or animosity, looking solely to what is just and for the common good. And because you are, as I think, naturally, more clever than other men, it is not surprising that you pass most excellent laws. But in the meetings of the Assembly and in the Courts, you oftentimes lose all hold of the discussion of the matter in hand, and are led away by deceit and trickery” (Aeschin. 1.177-178).
Demosthenes praises this practice of legislating (τοὺς νόμους τιθέναι) as being open and democratic (παρ᾽ ὑμῖν, ἐν τοῖς ὀμωμοκόσιν, παρ᾽ οἷσπερ καὶ τἄλλα κυροῦται), and in helping the average citizen keep track of the laws of the city: “[The Nomothetae undertake their annual review] so that there may be only one law dealing with each subject, and that the plain citizen may not be puzzled by such contradictions and be at a disadvantage compared with those who are acquainted with the whole body of law, but that all may have the same ordinances before them, simple and clear to read and understand” (Dem. 20.93).
Read about the evidence
Lycurgus (Lyc. 1).
As for the laws themselves, the products of the complex and carefully designed process of νομοθεσία, legislation, we find similar praise. The orator Lycurgus reminds his listeners that, “The things which in the main uphold our democracy and preserve the city’s prosperity are three in number: first the system of law, second the vote of the jury, and third the method of prosecution by which the crimes are handed over to them” (Lyc. 1.3-4).
And Demosthenes tells a jury, “I shall say nothing novel or extravagant or peculiar, but only what you all know to be true as well as I do. For if any of you cares to inquire what is the motive-power that calls together the Council, draws the people into the Assembly, fills the law-courts, makes the old archons resign readily to the new, and enables the whole life of the State to be carried on and preserved, he will find that it is the laws and the obedience that all men yield to the laws; since, if once they were done away with and every man were given licence to do as he liked, not only does the constitution vanish, but our life would not differ from that of the beasts of the field” (Dem. 25.20).
The procedures for enforcing the laws are a subject more appropriate to a discussion of the “People’s Court”.
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